Walter Duranty: Stalin’s Man on the New York Times.
For many, particularly most Ukrainians, Walter Duranty is a figure of hate, a man trusted with telling the truth about Stalin, only to repeat deliberate untruths, even when he was in a privileged position to highlight Stalin’s famines.
Walter Duranty, A British born, Irish American who had lost a leg in a train crash in France in 1924, was the New York Times correspondent in Moscow from the end of the Russian Civil War onwards.
He was in a prime position to witness the rise of Stalin and he rationalised and explained away the most violent aspects of Lenin’s social restructuring of Russian society. Of the Red Terror and the subsequent establishment of the Gulags for class enemies, Duranty argued that it was a re-imposition of a more traditionally Russian way of doing things.
Ever since Peter The Great had started to modernise and Westernise Russia, the trouble had started, claimed Duranty. Russia needed autocratic rule that would prevent individualism and encourage collectivism, because, as an Asiatic people, not Europeans, he claimed, the freedoms of the west ill suited Russians.
In this crudely simplistic way he explained how and why Lenin’s re-introduction of private enterprise in the guise of the New Economic Policy had been flawed, and that Stalin’s abandonment of that policy was the correct way forward.
Duranty was but one of a whole generation of Western intellectuals and observers at the time who smiled upon the Soviet Union, H.G.Wells, George Bernard Shaw and Sidney and Beatrice Webb were all mightily impressed with what they saw when they visited, and didn’t stop to question whether what they had been shown was a complete picture of the new Soviet society.
Though Duranty predicted the destruction of Russia’s kulaks (the wealthier peasants who were slightly better at farming than their neighbours, and who were accused of being counter revolutionaries), when the campaign to collectivise their farms resulted in famine, Duranty’s great crime was to assist in the cover up.
The British journalist Malcolm Muggeridge described Duranty as ‘the biggest liar I have ever known’, and both Muggeridge and Welsh journalist Gareth Jones wrote truthful accounts of the famine that killed at least five million in the British and US press.
Duranty, having seen the famine with his own eyes, said:
Any report of a famine in Russia is today an exaggeration or malignant propaganda. The food shortage, however, which has affected the whole population in the last year and particularly in the grain-producing provinces—the Ukraine, North Caucasus, the Lower Volga—has, however, caused heavy loss of life.
Duranty also denounced Jones’ reporting as false, claiming that tense Anglo- Soviet relations were at fault, over the case of six British engineers from the Metro-Vickers company, working on the Moscow underground project, accused of spying:
In the middle of the diplomatic duel between Great Britain and the Soviet Union over the accused British engineers, there appears from a British source a big scare story in the American press about famine in the Soviet Union, with ‘thousands already dead and millions menaced by death from starvation.
Duranty’s attempts at damage limitation were warmly received by Stalin, who granted him an exclusive interview, and his later coverage of the show trials won him a Pulitzer Prize. Duranty was never discredited in his lifetime and was held up publicly as an example of liberal journalism at its best. Since the end of the Soviet Union, however, the demand from the Ukraine, the nation worst affected by Stalin’s famines has been growing to see Duranty posthumously stripped of his Pulitzer and publicly shamed as a liar.
You can read a full account of Stalin, Duranty and the famines in my new accessible Explaining History ebook on Soviet Russia, Stalin, The Five Year Plans and the Gulags. For more opinion, analysis and detail on the Soviet Union and 20th Century history in general, visit my website at www.explaininghistory.com, get our weekly newsletter packed with free give aways, book reviews and articles, or download the Explaining History Podcast.